There’s very little about It Comes At Night that I’d class as comfortable viewing. The second film from writer/director Trey Edward Shults is 91 minutes of unsettling, often gripping filmmaking, that pitched a tent inside my brain and has stayed there since I watched it. I can’t honestly say I enjoyed watching it too much, but I can say it’s a fierce, impressive piece of work.
Its origins are important. Shults has been open about the fact that he didn’t have much of a relationship with his father, and that the two of them only really came back together when his dad was dying. He wrote the first draft of the script to It Comes At Night in pretty much the immediate aftermath of his father’s death, and the power of the motion throughout the finished film is real evidence of that. The film opens with a shocking, destabilising moment, but then shifts its goalposts a little, taking a little influence from Jeff Nichols’ outstanding Take Shelter, and evoking memories of Chris Gorak’s 2006 drama Right At Your Door.
We’re in what seems to be a post-apocalyptic world, with a small family of three – led by Joel Edgerton, in another typically brilliant performance – locking themselves away in the woods, trying to keep safe from an unnamed threat that’s infecting the world. From the off there’s a constant unease, the sense that a threat is just outside the door. And then another family discovers the little retreat. Are they infected? Are they trustworthy? Can two families live side by side, and are the stories they’re telling true? Given that the film is already rich in atmosphere by the time the two families come together, you could correctly conclude that the unspoken tension gets turned up, and turned up well. Shults then undercuts this with a leftfield score from Brian McOmber, that adds to the feeling of never really letting you settle.
There is a problem in a film being so relentlessly uncomfortable. It doesn’t help that the movie is being promoted as a horror movie, when it clearly isn’t. This is a mix of things: a bit of thriller, a bit of horror, but at heart, a drama that may even benefit from the claustrophobia of the stage as much as film. The narrative feels a little uneven at times too, and as odd as it might sound, it doesn’t feel like the shortest 91 minute film.
It’d be remiss too not the mention the divide between audiences and critics on its US release. Whereas the film has earned mainly strong reviews, there’s been a little bit of an audience backlash against it. I contend that’s a by-product of how the film has been sold, though. That its marketing got it to the top ten at the US box office, but its director, conversely, never envisaged it as a mass market film.
Instead he saw, and delivered, a far rawer piece of work, one that I think will continue to find audiences over a far longer period of time. Shults is clearly a filmmaker to watch too, juggling a small budget and picking his shots. His choices are very personal ones, and the film was born out of a very dark place. The end result, though, is one of the more unsettling pieces of cinema you’re likely to see all year.
It Comes At Night is in UK cinemas now.